on 6 April 2012
The first thing that is quite remarkable of this CD is HJ Lim's (self written) introduction to her understanding of the works. In the CD's little booklet we can read about Beethoven's adoration of both Prometheus and Napoleon, his (disappointed) love to Giulietta Guicciardi and the "Heiligenstädter testament". Whilst none of these aspects of Beethoven's life are new or particularly eye-opening, the conclusions are quite surprising. We learn about HJ Lim's view that the Hammerklavier-Sonata is, seen from a philosophical perspective, linked in straight line to sonata Nr 11 op 22 in B flat, and that Op.7, Op.14 Nos. 1 & 2, Op.27 Nos. 1 & 2 have some kind of programmatic background in Beethoven's troubles when it comes to women. This leads HJ Lim to a regrouping of Beethoven's sonatas, and so the CD starts off with the Hammerklavier-Sonata, then enter op 22 and op 81a (all of them "heroic"), and then the "Eternal Feminine -Youth" related sonatas.
I cant help it - whilst nothing of HJ Lim's comments is in itself entirely wrong, the text overall "just does not feel right", if I may use this label. The multitude of associations appears to be a bit artificial, as we move quickly from Greek mythology to the revolutionary pre-Metternich Vienna and from Plutarch to Madame Guicciardi. Yes, Beethoven surely lived through periods of strong personal ups and downs, which were sometimes based on disappointed love and his relationship to religion, but he was above all a musician who was interested in form and architecture, being well aware of the development his music made through time. And if we need a convincing "system" to group Beethoven's sonatas, the most natural seems to be the timeline of their creation, as clearly Beethoven's late sonatas are very different from his early work, and his style has changed through time, partly based on his personal development and partly on his development as a composer. No need therefore to start the cycle with the Hammerklavier-Sonata, followed by op 22, and to justify this over various pages with their foundation in the struggle of Prometheus.
Why do I focus on this point? Well, because it has something to do with romantic piano virtuosos playing classical composers. It seems that HJ Lim feels a strong urge to prove her classical education and familiarity with the deeper context of Beethoven's life long struggle, as well as with European history, from Greek mythology up to Erzherzog Rudolf. To clarify - I don't want to belittle her knowledge, maybe it is entirely profound. However, the CD booklet with HJ Lim's introduction exhibits a certain lack of gravity, and an all too easy way of analysis and making personal conclusions in this quite well researched matter. To give an example: Lim's introduction starts with "It is far from easy to attempt to understand Beethoven's relationship with the Creator, which was extremely complex and prone to many twists and turns. However, I felt it was essential to try to get to the bottom of this spirituality to understand the thoughts and inspiration behind Beethoven's sonatas". Seems like a tall order to me.
Coming to the interpretations, I would like to start with the positive aspects of the CD. Some of it is truly magnificent - to say the least. I particularly enjoyed listening to Nr 26 in E flat, where Lim's interpretation is clear, technically flawless, and departs very healthily from being all too programmatic in its interpretational approach. To my surprise, there is no overstatement of the "adieux" in the second movement. In contrast, Lim captures a very "modern" form of good bye, which is fragile and porous, rather than full of tears and all Disney. There she reaches the gravity which her introductory words seem to lack, and it is very well worth to listen to the brilliancy and depth of the interpretation more than a few times. Similar remarks are valid for the Scherzo of Nr 10 (G major), which I found very convincing. Indeed, my association was that Beethoven would have been entirely pleased, would he have had the chance to listen to this interpretation. I particularly like the way HJ Lim uses her phenomenal technical abilities to create patterns of immensely clear and well articulated sound, well within the context of playing Beethoven (rather than Chopin).
On the other hand, the CD has some material weaknesses, which seem to mirror the critical remarks above to the overall approach of HJ Lim's analysis. In some instances, Lim seems to fall into the trap and indeed play Beethoven like Liszt, thus creating a very odd feel for the listener. The first movement of sonata Nr 10, for example, is garnished with stretta--type accelerandos (the same in the last movement of Nr 9), similar to the finale of a romantic virtuoso show piece, and in the second movement of op 22, the melody is played a bit delayed and in "arpeggio-style", as some romantic piano pieces may demand. Many unmotivated tempo changes and a remarkable freedom in articulation, partly against Beethoven's clear annotation (legato arpeggios played staccato, etc), and - surprisingly - some technical insufficiencies darken the positive feelings that some of the interpretations create.
To summarize, I would recommend the CD to anyone who is interested in Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, as there is a lot of fresh wind that HJ Lim brings into this sometimes all too ceremonial area of classical music. While in my view some of this fresh wind goes beyond a clear concept and lacks structural consistency, her approach is definitely worth hearing and parts of her debut I would consider as very interesting and indeed beautiful. There is huge talent, no doubt, and maybe in 20 years from now Ms Lim will record the sonatas another time. Then, so it seems to me, we might very well witness a true revelation.